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Minn. Boards' Informal Meetings Are Opened

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St Paul--The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that "administrative seminars" at which school-board members and district administrators gather to mull over long-range planning must be open to the public and news media under Minnesota's Open Meeting Law.

The ruling reversed a lower court's decision that the seminar-type gatherings were not "meetings" within the definition of the "all-is-open" statute, which is among the broadest in the nation.

That the Minnesota case may have implications for other states was suggested by one state supreme court justice, who observed that every state now has some sort of open-meeting law, with the majority of states following Minnesota's presumption that everything is open unless it is specifically closed.

In the 7-to-2 decision, Associate Justice George Scott said, speaking for the majority, that board members and administrators in Stearns County broke the law by holding four closed seminar meetings in 1980 and 1981 for which no public notice was given.

Judge Scott conceded that no decisions or even "pre-decisions" were actually made at the gatherings, but he said matters were discussed that might later require final board ac-tion. So he ruled that they were legally "meetings," adding that the legislature clearly intended that, with rare exceptions, all meetings of public agencies be open. He said the law must be construed to protect the public's right to "full access to the decision-making process."

Dissenting Associate Justice John Simonett said: "The seminar-type discussion that takes place at such a meeting is not the kind that ordinarily and appropriately occurs at an open public meeting. Nor is it the type of discussion that impairs the public's right of input in the decision-making process. ..."

The case was sent back to the trial court for sentencing. The penalty is a "civil" fine of up to $100 for each violation, and "good faith" is not a defense, according to the justices.

However, in this case, Judge Scott said, the justices recommended that any decision about penalties to be imposed on the offending officials take into consideration their good faith. He also pointed to a supreme court ruling last year that exempted superintendents from the scope of the Open Meeting Law. The lawsuit was brought by the Saint Cloud Daily Times. Stephen Studt, its publisher, said, "We are very pleased. The public's right to know is broadly upheld. It certainly would have been a tremendous setback if we had lost."

A Minnesota School Boards Asso-ciation spokesman said the group has no comment "yet." School boards across the state generally have complained about the Open Meeting Law, contending that it is too broad.

President Donald C. Hill of the Minnesota Education Association (mea), which filed a friend-of-the-court brief against the local officials, said the decision means that school boards cannot legally conduct sessions disguised as something else. "It's a gratifying and meaningful decision," he added.

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